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AS hospitals form new partnerships throughout Washington state, patients should know exactly how their right to legal health services will be affected.

A lack of clarity with some policies has led many critics statewide to cast a negative — and sometimes unfair — light on mergers and affiliations between secular and religious hospitals.

To increase transparency and fill a trust void between some providers and patients, the state Department of Health has wisely revised two key regulatory rules to take effect on Jan. 23:

• All hospitals undergoing a sale, merger or change in management structure must undergo a Certificate of Need review, which was formerly done only for health-care providers seeking approval to build new facilities or to expand services.

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• During the licensing process, all hospitals must clarify and post online their policies in four key areas of concern: admissions, nondiscrimination (particularly for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender patients), end-of-life care and reproductive health services.

This is a good time to take a step back and view the bigger picture.

The Vatican is not plotting a takeover of Washington’s hospitals. The boards of secular institutions are finding ways to operate in the era of the Affordable Care Act. Aligning with financially stable, Catholic-sponsored systems represents an opportunity to increase purchasing power, reduce expenses and become more sustainable.

But this means nonreligious hospitals are also subjecting their patient base to religious doctrine, which prohibits certain legal procedures such as physician-assisted suicide and elective abortion. In reality, those services are more often provided outside hospitals.

The Department of Health’s new rules should help remove surprise factors from future deals. Setting some common regulatory standards creates realistic expectations. It might even lead to the sort of creative solutions that protect access and referrals for patients.

For instance, Swedish Medical Center stopped performing elective abortions once it merged with Providence Health & Services in 2011. In response to the community’s demand for a full range of reproductive care, Swedish worked with Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest to establish a health center on its First Hill campus.

Religious divisions are real and can be hard to overcome, but the state’s efforts to increase transparency encourages hospitals to extend care, lower costs and improve health outcomes in a transparent, legal way.

Can more be done? Probably. But this is a good place to start.

Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Sharon Pian Chan, Lance Dickie, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).

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